Monday, February 3, 2014

Serge et le Phoque - a decent restaurant with a funny name

Looking to indulge in excessive traditional Chinese food as we celebrate the Lunar New Year, we were looking for a casual western place for dinner a few days before the long holidays for a change. I suddenly remembered this bistro in Wanchai that everyone's been talking about a few months ago, so I called and made a last minute reservation.


Serge et le Phoque was peculiarly located in a side street next to Wanchai's wet market, and may seem a bit out of place with its surroundings. Outside on the street, the market's still full of actions late in the evening, with stall owners shouting, housewives making last minute grocery purchases, or others walking by in rapid pace while looking at their iPhones; but inside, through the unmarked entrance separated by a curtain and floor-to-ceiling window, it's a warm and cozy place, and the minimal lighting brought to the mood of quietness and comfort - just ideal for winding down after a busy work day.

The dining room was spacious, with large open pantry/bar and communal high table near the entrance, then a handful small tables scattered around and a private room that can sit maybe 8 situated at the back. It's not a particularly busy night for them and they seated us in one of the round booth table with comfortable couch in the middle of the room. For dinner, only one set menu was served, offering choices for appetizers, mains and desserts plus a cheese platter, and I presume the choices for each course change regularly. The menu only listed out major ingredients for each dish, but the waiters were very helpful in explaining everything to you if you are curious.

After a bowl of edamame plus the amuse bouche of tiny squid tentacles served with raspberry, dill and chimichurri sauce (which was good, by the way), the waiter brought us the appetizer course. For mine, on the menu it's listed as "Leche del Tigre, Red Snapper, Raspberry" - turned out it's red snapper ceviche with marinate and raspberry coulis. The red snapper was cut into thick slices (like a sashimi), cured in racy marinate full of citrus and cilantro flavors (aka Leche del Tigre), then served with small pieces of raspberries, balancing out the acidity with its sweetness. It's sharp and refreshing with the fish super fresh and got a good, firm texture. It tasted more like a summer dish than winter one, but I still liked it.

I turned to seafood again for my choice of mains - I guess I was just in the mood for that. The mackeral fillet was slightly torched, layered with thin strips of lardo di collonata, radish shoot and bonito flakes, and on the side, sweet, caramelized shallots. Once again, I love the texture and taste of that cooked mackeral medium-rare, even though the overall presentation looked a bit messy and I didn't quite like the idea of having everything crowded together in a corner of a big round plate. But overall it's tasty and the fish itself was  once again excellent. The idea of preparation might come from the Japanese, but it did offer a completely different flavor profile, making this an interesting dish.

Portion did look a bit small at first - especially my main course - but at the end I felt we were well-fed. I don't usually comment on bread and butter but they were great too - the bread has this homey and rustic taste from that of a well made sour dough and the slightly salted butter was creamy and addictive. The bread worked well with the cheese too which came after our main course. I forgot the names of the two types that were served - one probably was a brie and there's another soft cheese, but both were great and we finished them all even though we were given quite generous slices.

Dessert choices were straight forward - some simple, made-ahead pastries but well-prepared - mine is two dacquoise "sandwiches" served in the shape of giant macarons and dusted with icing sugar, and in between the dacquoise cookies, nougatine and creme anglaise. It's crunchy and creamy with just the right balance of sweetness.

The wine list was fun - ranging from simple Vin de Table from boutique wineries in Loire and Rhone regions, to that from top Burgundian negotiants, and a good selection either by the bottle or by glass. We wanted something easy and went with a couple glasses from Loire Valley, which came reasonably priced and in generous pour, something unusual in this town. Both the rose and the red came from the same winemaker in Loire and were light-bodied and dry. I particularly liked the red, a Gamay-Pinot blend, which carried a fragrant note of strawberry and not much of a tannin, and was something simple and cheerful - there's no need to swirl and over-analyze what's on your palate or the after-taste etc.

I am satisfied with everything here and think the execution for the dishes was spot on. Some restaurants try to impress by flamboyant cooking style loaded with fancy seasonings while skimming on the main ingredients, but here the food quality was of top notch and techniques were contemporary and down-to-earth to bring out the best flavors from the ingredients. The restaurant was uniquely positioned - the menu and setting is comfortable and down to earth yet the food has a sophisticated touch and the bill won't break your wallet (unless you went for the $10000 bottle from the wine list). While this may not be an ideal venue for say, a grand birthday celebration or to propose to the love of your life, this is perfect if you are looking for something nice and cozy, something of a no-brainer.

When? January 28 2014
Where? Serge et le Phoque, Shop B2, 3 Wanchai Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Dessert of Dacquoise; Vanilla Cream; Nougatine
Drinks? Puzelat-Bonhomme 'KO' Rose Touraine 2012
Clos du Tue-Boeuf Cheverny "Rouillon" Touraine 2012


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